The Magazine

The Most Successful Conservative

Lord Salisbury's Achievement

Mar 13, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 25 • By DAVID FRUM
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In the elections of November 1885, the Liberals won three hundred and thirty-five of six hundred and seventy seats, while the Conservatives won two hundred and forty-nine and the Nationalists eighty-six. Gladstone could only form a government by making a deal with the Parnellites. Within days of the election, Gladstone declared himself in favor of the Parnellite demand for a separate Parliament for Ireland: Home Rule it was called. Gladstone assumed from Salisbury's clandestine discussions with Parnell that the Conservatives would not put up much of a fight, and he was taken aback when Salisbury abruptly reversed himself.

Public opinion backed Salisbury, and under the pressure of the controversy, the Liberals began to fragment. While reaching for the Irish, Gladstone loosened his grip on the English. In the climactic vote on the Home Rule bill, more than one hundred Liberals defected. Gladstone was forced to call an election in the summer of 1886, and this time he was beaten badly by Salisbury's new coalition of Conservatives and anti-Home Rule Liberals. Salisbury would go on to hold office for a total of fifteen years, longer than Gladstone himself. Salisbury retired in 1902, but his party would hold power for fifty-nine of the ninety-eight remaining years of the twentieth century.

Salisbury's Unionist formula combined vigorous self-assertion abroad with modest social reform at home. It was Salisbury's Unionists who enacted universal elementary education and who belatedly introduced elected local governments in place of the old informal system of rule by the local gentry. His Unionist government also built Britain's first public housing: a departure from laissez faire that Salisbury seems to have been able to accept by analogizing it to a seignior's moral responsibility to house the poor attached to his estate.

Abroad, Salisbury added millions of square miles to the British empire -- all of modern South Africa, and most of what is now Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Malawi as well as all of Kenya, Uganda, and the Sudan, and most of Nigeria. At the same time, his adroit diplomacy allayed the resentments and jealousies of other European powers. It was to this success in "painting the map red" -- red being the cartographer's color for British territory -- that Unionists owed their popularity. Defeated in 1892, they went on to win back-to-back majorities in 1895 and 1900: the first time any British party had accomplished such a thing since 1832 -- and the last time a party would do so, without first changing leaders, until Margaret Thatcher's reelection in 1983.

And it is in foreign affairs that Salisbury's example may have the most to say to conservatives today. Britain in the 1890s was not as strong relative to the other powers of the world as the United States is today. The United States would overtake Britain in gross output by 1900, and Germany was rapidly catching up. Britain did maintain a navy that was as powerful as any two other nations' combined. But its army was so small that Bismarck joked that if Germany were attacked by Britain, he'd call out the Prussian state police to arrest the invaders. America at the dawn of the twenty-first century, by contrast, maintains forces equal to those of the next five powers combined, paid for by an economy that is at least twice as large as that of its likeliest strategic rival, China.

Yet, the foreign policy problems that Britain faced at the end of the nineteenth century are similar to those faced by the United States today: How to deal with the ambitions of a new great power whose intentions cannot be read clearly but do not look friendly (Germany then, China now); and how to deal with one's own ambitions. "I have a strong opinion," Salisbury warned in 1898,

that there is a danger of the public opinion of this country believing that it is our duty to take everything we can, to fight everybody, and to make a quarrel of every dispute. That seems to me a very dangerous doctrine, not merely because it might incite other nations against us . . . but there is a more serious danger. However strong you may be, whether you are a man or a nation, there is a point beyond which your strength will not go. It is madness; it ends in ruin if you allow yourself to pass beyond it.

Salisbury's diplomacy has to be ranked a success. He backed away from conflicts with Germany in the Far East and the United States in Venezuela -- not out of pacifism, but because he wanted Britain to be on good terms with all the world's major powers before he embarked upon his South African war. Salisbury's successors were unable to keep the peace with Germany. But when Germany did finally force a war against Britain, Germany fought with three weak allies, while Britain, in large part thanks to Salisbury's work, was backed by France, Russia, Italy, and eventually the United States.

So what then does this gruff, unsentimental old aristocrat have to teach us? Two things, principally.

First, conservative parties must cope with new social facts, but the right way to cope with them is often indirectly. Salisbury did not respond to the 1884 Reform Act either by turning the Conservatives into a quasi-socialist party (as his temperamental associate Randolph Churchill often seemed to want to do) or by appeasing Irish nationalism. He let his opponent succumb to both temptations, and then assembled a new coalition out of the Liberals who reacted against that succumbing. It's an example Republicans should bear in mind when they are told, for example, that they must accept bilingualism lest they alienate the growing Hispanic minority; true political wisdom may, in fact, take the form of a more subtle and less controversial adaptation to Hispanics' new-found electoral influence.

Also, Salisbury always took care to ensure that the elements he added to his coalition were growing ones: It was the white-collar middle-class he pursued, for instance, rather than the declining High Church vote, personally sympathetic as Salisbury was to the latter. When it was necessary, Salisbury sacrificed the churchmen -- the new universal state schools he set up corroded the old system of state-supported Anglican schools -- but he never ever got on the wrong side of suburban voters. That, too, is a good lesson to those conservatives (or quasi-conservatives) like Gary Bauer and Pat Buchanan who invoke protectionism to win the dwindling ballots of steelworkers and auto assemblers.

Second, it's smart for a right-of-center party to be nationalist, providing it keeps its nationalism within reasonable limits. It must respect the nation's willingness to pay the bills, and it must carefully avoid unnecessary foreign quarrels that risk restricting its freedom to maneuver when it really must act. Salisbury's preference for a non-interventionist approach to foreign affairs was not, as his opponents alleged, a sign of his "isolationism." It reflected rather an understanding that once he entangled himself in any one of the countless opportunities for entanglement that arose every day, he would lose much of his freedom to respond to any of the rest. Salisbury's twin priorities were expanding British power in Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean (to safeguard the Suez Canal) and in southern Africa (where he saw an opportunity to create another gigantic British dominion like Canada or Australia). Everywhere else -- in the Caribbean where he was challenged by an obstreperous United States, in the Far East where Germany was seeking an empire of its own, and in Central Asia where Russia seemed to be closing in on India -- he preferred to avoid committing himself.

Salisbury was not a glamorous man. In person, he was notoriously shabby. His speeches never packed the emotional voltage of Gladstone's. He utterly lacked the magnetic charm of Benjamin Disraeli, never mind the overwhelming personal charisma of his American contemporary and counterpart Theodore Roosevelt. His mind was subtle and indirect, and his methods unpleasantly tinged with deceit: Salisbury was almost Clintonian in his ability to give answers that were literally true but intentionally misleading, and when they failed to mislead, he did not scruple to lie out-right. But his biographer Andrew Roberts is right: He deserves a titanic biography and, in Salisbury: Victorian Titan, he has gotten it.

David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of How We Got Here: The '70s: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life -- for Better or Worse (Basic Books).